Unique among evangelical organizations, WEA is characterized by five charter qualifications. First, a doctrinal confession guides it—grounding it in historic evangelical affirmations. Second, it has constitutionality—governed by Bylaws and General Assembly delegates, which guarantee historical continuity. Third, it is a church-based movement—listening to its constituency as its core authority. Thus, it is not an organization established and maintained by individuals. Fourth, its constituency is global—rooted in 129 national and seven regional alliances, 104 associate members, six affiliated specialized ministries and six commissions. Finally, it functions as a network while providing the services of an alliance—through its resources, departments and commissions. WEA is the broadest organizational and global manifestation of what it means to be an evangelical.
1. The Evangelical Alliance, 1846-1951
WEA’s roots began in 1846 with the establishment in England of the Evangelical Alliance, incorporated in 1912 as the World’s Evangelical Alliance (British Organization).
The 1846 historical context is instructive. The English conscience was disturbed by growing social injustices, especially working conditions and child labor. The Church of England experienced the Scottish Disruption and the Tractarian Movement exodus. Darwin was developing his evolutionary theories, and Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto in 1848; France, Germany and Italy all experienced revolutions in 1848.
The Second Great Awakening (1791-1842) created a desire for Christian fellowship across the boundaries of church and geography, especially in the British Isles and USA. “It was a time that called everywhere for the influence of an [sic] united and powerful Christian Church.” (Ewing, 12). British meetings starting in 1843 led to the watershed London gathering in August 19-September 2, 1846 at Freemason Hall. Representatives came from England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Sweden, Germany, France, Holland, Switzerland, the US and Canada. Some 800-1000 Christian leaders, representing 53 “bodies of Christians”, met for 13 days in worship, preaching and business.
Controversy emerged when British participants moved to exclude slave-holders from membership. The atmosphere was charged by the delayed arrival of Mollison M. Clark, an American negro minister from the African Methodist Episcopal denomination in New York. Given “the right hand of fellowship”, he affirmed “…his sense of the value of the newly-formed Alliance and of his privilege in being admitted to its membership….” (Ewing, 19). After six days of heated debate, the final constitution did not address slavery due to American pressures. Howard’s judgment: “It is sobering and saddening to realize that disagreement on a social issue such as slavery, which today would not occupy five minutes of debate in a worldwide evangelical forum, should scuttle the attempt to build a truly representative body of evangelicals on a global basis.” (Howard, 13) A “confederation” was formed—not a new “ecclesiastical structure”—to express existing spiritual unity, with a doctrinal statement of evangelical convictions. (Howard, 11). For 100 years the Evangelical Alliance operated as an informal structure and platform for evangelical unity under the four “Practical Resolutions”. (Ewing, 20)
During 1846-1955, “branches” were established in France, Germany, Canada, USA, Sweden, India, Turkey, Spain and Portugal. General Conferences, focusing on Christian fellowship and unity were held in London (1851), Paris (1855), Berlin (1857), Geneva (1861), Amsterdam (1867), New York (1873), Basle (1879), Copenhagen (1884), Florence (1891).
They emphasized the proclamation and expansion of the Gospel; established the long-lasting Universal Week of Prayer starting in 1861; protested against the “Papacy and Popery”; advocated for religious liberty “…the succor of the oppressed.” in Europe, Russia, Turkey, Persia, Japan, Madagascar, Brazil and Peru (Ewing, 58); defended “The Lord’s Day”, attacking Sunday labor, and “…organised games and amusements”. (Ewing, 83); and backed freedom of slaves in the USA, and their resettlement in Africa. Their official magazine was “Evangelical Christendom”.
2. World Evangelical Fellowship: 1951-2001
Up to 1951 the Alliance was primarily a British venture, with uneven support in Europe and the USA. Two world wars had decimated hopes for greater unity. Evangelicals lived a new historical context: Americans founded the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942; 51 nations in 1945 signed the UN charter and in 1951 the UN headquarters opened in New York; the World Council of Churches was founded in 1948; Remington Rand delivered the first commercial UNIVAC I computer.
2.1 Holland, 1951
Some 91 men and women from 21 nations met in Holland as the International Convention of Evangelicals to re-envision the old EA into a global fellowship. Leaders included J. Elwin Wright, Harold J. Ockenga, and Clyde W. Taylor from the USA and John R. W. Stott and A. Jack Dain from England. Dain and Stott drafted its threefold purpose: The furtherance of the gospel; the defense and confirmation of the gospel; and the fellowship in the gospel. (Howard, 28-34).
2.2 WEF from 1951-1982
Word spread of this new, global body, with its Executive Committee, co-international leaders, and four commissions—evangelism, missionary, literature, Christian action. WEF’s leaders traveled indefatigably, establishing and expanding the new global evangelical body, always with scarce funding.
Executive leadership and office headquarters for WEF
1. Roy Cattell (England) and J. Elwin Wright (USA), co-secretaries, 1951-1953
2. A.J. Dain (England) and J. Elwin Wright (USA), co-secretaries, 1953-1958
3. Fred Ferris (USA), International Secretary, USA,1958-1962
4. Gilbert Kirby (England), International Secretary,1962-1966
5. Dennis Clark (Canada), International Secretary, 1966-1970
6. Gordon Landreth (England), interim International Secretary,1970-1971
7. Clyde Taylor (USA), International Secretary, 1971-1975
8. Waldron Scott, (USA) General Secretary, 1975-1980
9. Wade Coggins, (USA) Interim General Secretary, 1981
Howard traveled the world with the dream of evangelicals in common cause. Scores of alliances were visited and some 40 founded. Regional alliances grew and the International Council’s role matured. Howard’s title became General Director, and later International Director. Travel was grueling, and the organizational and financial crisis hit hard in 1985, in spite of new vision casting with a fresh mission statement (Howard, 156). Howard’s ten year (double the tenure of any previous executive!) legacy is strong: he established integrity, fiscal responsibility, pastoral vision while growing his team of commission and alliance leaders, and the IC. He will be remembered for moving headquarters from the USA to Singapore in 1987, for WEF was now finally to the global church epicenter.
In Manila 1992, Filipino Agustin “Jun” Vencer became ID until 2001. A Majority World leader! Vencer’s commitments: to establish and strengthen national alliances, reflecting his Philippine experience; to embody Biblical wholism, integrating Gospel and social concern. Commissions and self-supported staff grew under his tenure. The Religious Liberty commission and the leadership training department began. One commission was phased out. Tireless travel characterized Vencer’s nine years. The historic funding challenges re-emerged with three offices: Singapore, Manila, USA.
Vencer’s tenure concluded at the Kuala Lumpur 2001 General Assembly, without a successor, but with a new name—World Evangelical Alliance. An interim operating team was capably led by IC Chair, David Detert, (France-based American executive), for a year. The Asia offices were closed and headquarters returned to the USA.
Early in 2001 WEA asked Interdev for a comprehensive evaluation of the movement; the report was presented by Interdev’s Gary Edmonds. At a 2002 WEA gathering in England, the International Council invited Edmonds himself to become WEA’s new Secretary General. Edmonds reduced debts by closing the Wheaton office and moving it to Seattle. He negotiated the decision to sell the Singapore property. Edmonds worked to revamp WEA, a move that didn’t garner the desired support. Ironically the Interdev report recommendations were not implemented. Edmonds resigned early in 2004 and WEA found itself again in leadership and funding uncertainty.
A new era began in 2005 when Canadian Geoff Tunnicliffe became International Director. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada invited WEA to move it administration and financial functions to Toronto and provides vital support. WEA now grows with new human and financial resources from alliances and affiliates. Tunnicliffe brings a singular gift mix and collegiality to WEA. Offices opened near Vancouver, Canada (Leadership), San Francisco (Information Technology), Washington, D.C. (Global Press), and Geneva (United Nations). WEA Affiliate member, the Christian Media Corporation, offered its services in media, communications and technology.
3. An evaluation of WEF/WEA
Howard’s book, “The dream that would not die” is well named. WEA’s Biblical vision for practical unity is driven by Christ’s John 17 prayer. Its strengths go beyond those presented in the first paragraph. WEA embraces the tectonic shift in the epicentre of global Christianity in its constituency and leadership, regional and national alliances and commissions. Leadership grapples anew with the meaning of “evangelical”, even as they sort out relationships to evangelicals in other communions, to the World Council of Churches, to Lausanne and other global groups. Commissions are being strengthened, with the Mission Commission and its reflective practitioners setting the standard. WEA’s Religious Liberty Commission and presence in the United Nations represent bold public advocacy voices. WEA serves as both alliance and network. WEA is defined and recognized as representatives of a distinct worldwide constituency, and participates in the annual Conference of Secretaries of World Christian Communions.
WEA has its weaknesses. Some considered it a “gated community” not welcoming the broader evangelical family into membership; others perceived it as an inflexible ecclesiastical structure. As it struggles with perennial financial limitations, will its constituencies “own” WEA to provide necessary human and financial resources for it to serve its purposes excellently? Some still perceive it as too Western-driven and funded, and it has suffered from uneven leadership.
Today however, a new day dawns upon a revitalized WEA with its regional and national alliances, commissions (theology, religious liberty, mission, youth, women, information technology), affiliated specialized ministries, and organizational ministries. WEA today is a network of churches in 129 nations that have joined to give a worldwide identity, voice and platform to more than 600 million evangelical Christians.
R.C. Cizik, “World Evangelical Fellowship”, Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. D. G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL, USA: InterVarsity Press, 1990) 1175.
J. W. Ewing, Goodly Fellowship: A Centenary Tribute to the Life and Work of the World Evangelical Alliance 1846-1946, (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, Ltd., 1946).
W. H. Fuller, People of the Mandate: The Story of the World Evangelical Fellowship, (Grand Rapids, Mich., USA: Baker Book House, 1996).
K. Hylson-Smith, “Evangelicals”, Encyclopedia of Christianity, ed. J. Bowden, ed. (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2005) 436-438.
D. M. Howard, The Dream that Would Not Die: the birth and growth of the World Evangelical Fellowship 1846-1985, (Exeter, England: The Paternoster Press, 1986).
idem. Conversation by author with Howard, August 15, 2006.
WEA archives. http://www.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/GUIDES/338.htm, accessed August 12, 2006:
WEA Internet Site http://www.worldevangelicalalliance.com/, accessed August 12, 2006
Written by William D. Taylor, Ph.D., Senior Mentor, WEA Mission Commission
Adapted from “Global Dictionary of Theology,” Edited by Wiliam A. Dyrness and Veli-Matti Karkkainen, InterVarsity Press. 2008. Copyright (c) InterVarsity Press. Used with permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515.www.ivpress.com